Eclipse de siete lunas: mujeres muralistas en México examines the participation of twenty-four women artists in the production of murals in Mexico between 1920 and 1980. Through archival research, site visits to mural projects, and interviews, Dina Comisarenco Mirkin recovers and examines a significant range of creative works, mainly projects that, as she puts it, have fallen into the realm of “silenced histories.” The title of the book—evoking that which is temporarily hidden or covered—sets the tone. It is borrowed from the title of a poem by Aurora Reyes Flores, the first Mexican woman to paint a mural in the country in 1936—a powerful and unrelenting image of a violent assault against a female schoolteacher. While it was generally a monumental effort for any artist to realize a mural project (due to financial and/or political circumstances), it was even more difficult for women artists to succeed at receiving and then implementing commissions. Those projects that were seen to fruition have been neglected in accounts of the mural movement. Some have also been physically neglected, while others have been whitewashed, or destroyed during the demolition of their site buildings. As an art historian dedicated to the examination of under-recognized women artists, Comisarenco here seeks to, as she says, shine a light on their mural projects. In the process she offers new perspectives on Modernism in Mexico, its evolving, diverse strategies of artistic experimentation, and its responses to cycles of social and artistic repression.
Eclipse de siete lunas is structured chronologically through the six decades of mural production it covers. Each section opens with an analysis of the wider Mexican political and artistic context and concurrent advances and retractions of women’s rights. This is followed by discussions of individual artists and their murals. The sections are accompanied by photographs, often of the artists on scaffolding at work, contradicting the oft-repeated assertion that women simply did not have the physical stamina for large-scale murals (Comisarenco discusses this misperception in her concluding reflections).
During the first period, the 1920s to the early 1930s, several US artists traveled to Mexico to work with such muralists as Diego Rivera (in 1929 Ione Robinson became one of the first women to participate in the movement in Mexico, as Rivera’s assistant). Better-known projects are examined, such as Marion and Grace Greenwood’s murals at the Mexico City Mercado Abelardo L. Rodríguez, but the real revelation is a mural that has since been destroyed: Ryah Ludins’s Industria moderna (1934–35), an accomplished work in Michoacán exploring the harnessing of the Earth for technological advancements. Funding was canceled before Ludins could begin her third section, which Comisarenco argues may have been due to her plans to express a somewhat critical vision of industry. The cancellation of projects because of an artist’s intended controversial content occurred in many instances, as Eclipse de siete lunas explores. However, it is notable that so many women artists from the United States found walls to paint on in Mexico and were often able to express overtly leftist political themes that would be have impossible in their home country. Similar opportunities were scarce for women from Mexico during the same period.
This changed to a certain degree during the second half of the 1930s and the 1940s, when Aurora Reyes began to participate in the movement with the abovementioned El ataque a la maestra rural (1936), while also forming the Instituto Revolucionario Femenino, an organization advocating for women’s suffrage. Comisarenco dedicates a lengthy section to Reyes, whose later mural projects of the 1950s to 1970s continued to foreground women, although at times through an arguably restrictive lens of maternity. Also examined is the notorious case of prominent artist María Izquierdo’s failed mural commission in 1947, which was awarded and then retracted by the municipal government in Mexico City; Izquierdo very publicly asserted that Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros were responsible for its cancellation, describing them in scathing newspaper articles as creating a deeply detrimental monopoly on the mural movement. Comisarenco’s analysis of artworks in this section (including Izquierdo’s preparatory drawings) is especially strong.
The 1950s and 1960s saw another wave of international artists working on mural projects throughout Mexico. One of the most significant and to date under-examined is Rina Lazo. Born in Guatemala in 1923, she worked as an assistant to Rivera on many of his major commissions, carried out multiple murals on her own, and continues to work on mural projects today. Lazo received high praise for her work from both Rivera and Siqueiros. Comisarenco documents multiple instances of endorsement by male artists and critics of projects by their female counterparts in this period, a sharp contrast with the intense public critique to which Izquierdo had been exposed. This was of course also the time during which women achieved the right to vote, in 1953. Comisarenco also provides important documentation on the projects of the six women—including Lazo—who received commissions to create murals on themes related to Indigenous cultures for the newly constructed Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.
Eclipse de siete lunas concludes with short discussions of the work of three women artists in the 1970s, including a fascinating project by Lilia Carrillo, La ciudad desbordada, contaminación del aire. This portable mural was created in 1969 for the Mexican Pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan. Participating artists were directed by Fernando Gamboa to create works on issues specifically facing “the third world,” and he suggested that they examine the ways in which “the machine, technology and science” were not being equally applied throughout society (184). Carrillo’s project is one of the few abstract murals that Comisarenco explores, indicating that this was not a direction many women artists pursued. Deeper analysis in this final section would have been helpful; it is certainly an area that scholars can expand upon in the future.
Eclipse de siete lunas underscores the wide range of responses by women artists to political events and their ongoing social justice concerns across many decades, including urban development and its impact on Indigenous communities as well as its role in environmental pollution. Land-related issues figure strongly in a good number of the mural projects, framed in terms of tensions between nationalization and international capitalism, and the corresponding frictions between modern mechanization and long-standing rural ways of life. Many works explored in the book express idealism and utopianism regarding Indigenous societies, and at times connect this with visions of women’s rights, from both historic and contemporary angles.
Thematically, the artists generally worked within muralism’s established systems and visual languages as forwarded by their male counterparts, but with (at times subtle) insertions of their perspectives as women. In her conclusion, Comisarenco emphasizes that some of the murals are currently in bad condition. This is certainly not an issue restricted to projects by women, but it is important that this text documenting their projects might have some impact on future efforts toward preservation and/or restoration. More broadly, Eclipse de siete lunas uncovers a rich and wide body of art, which will hopefully lead to deeper investigations of the individual projects presented. It is not possible to assume that these works will be recognized or protected without a conscious effort to continue the analysis and research that Comisarenco has initiated with this significant text.